Part 1 in a series of 4
What a strange time of year. So far summer has been non-existent in The Hague and yet in a few weeks school will be back for the fall semester. Expat families will be returning from their summer travels to their home countries and life will get back into a regular routine.
For some families there is an even bigger hurdle to navigate than in previous years – a child going to university. For an expat family that hurdle can loom larger and more terrifying than most.
Your child’s last year at school has flown by at warp speed, college and university applications submitted, extended essays finished, exams endured, long anticipated results arrived and final choices made. You are thrilled, proud and supportive of those choices.
Until you wake up at 3 o’clock one morning realising the impact their leaving will have on you.
For 18 years you’ve watched over, worried, raised and loved beyond reason this bundle of endless energy. You’ve watched them grow from helpless infants, demanding toddlers, and feisty challenging teens into mature young adults ready to take on the world. And suddenly you realise after all these years they’ll no longer be living under your roof.
Of course you knew this would happen one day, wanted it to happen, eager to release the fledgling from the nest confident in the knowledge you’ve done your best, that they are ready.
You’ve replayed the scene endlessly in your head, the final farewell as you wave them off into the sunset, proud smile, encouraging words and absolutely no tears.
Only right now, at three in the morning, you’re not so sure.
How can they be ready to leave home when they can’t hold a thought in their heads for more than two seconds? Will they wash, do laundry or even remember what day it is without you? Will they phone/email home? How the heck will you know what they’re doing?
These haunting thoughts arriving in the quiet, dark hours will enact every nightmare scenario your fevered imagine can conjure, and they never end well.
For the expat family these nightmares are worse – factor in universities overseas, different country, continent, time zones and cultures and those night terrors reach epic proportions.
Do you take your child to college, allow him/her to fly alone? Do both parents go? Usually not if it’s overseas, as there are often younger children in the family who need to be looked after. If only one parent, which one? Stupid question – every mom knows the answer to that. And every mom is the very worst person to undertake the task.
Our youngest child, Harry, will be leaving the nest this year but has made it clear he intends to fly off to university on the other side of the world. On his own… In his dreams.
Despite the bravado, the promises you’ve made to yourself, the goodbyes will not go as you planned. Emotions will not be ones you’ve experienced before, they’ll feel weird and unfamiliar, there will be no rule book. You may feel better than you expected to, (for a while), you may feel worse, you may feel nothing at all.
The reality is this experience is different for everyone. It depends whether it’s your first child leaving or your third, (for the record, Harry is our third), whether they’re sons or daughters, how far away they’ll be and your relationship with them. Easy words I know, but true.
When my eldest left home he was a two-hour drive away. He was ready to leave and had been telling us just how ready for the previous two years. Fights with his siblings were monumental, mood swings left us walking on egg-shells. He didn’t want us to take him to college but we did, with his siblings too. He couldn’t wait for us to unpack his stuff and leave.
Driving home, all of us subdued, (including his sister who had been checking off the days to his leaving with undisguised delight), he called asking if we were okay. We realised the previous two years of being the worst parents in the universe was his way of breaking the emotional bonds. He didn’t realise those bonds would always be there, whatever. My dear, eldest son is now more family orientated than I could have imagined, worries about every member of the family, phones home regularly and misses us like crazy.
Our experience with our daughter was different. As she started university we knew we would be leaving America the following year to move to Europe. She chose to stay in the place she had grown up, with childhood friends and their families around her. A sensible, sound, well-thought out decision. Until the day of reckoning.
She left our home heading to Florida for a break with friends, as we packed up to leave. There were tears, of course there were, but she was happy with her decision and drove off with me and her brothers standing in the road waving goodbye.
I was aware of a pitiful keening wail and realised it was coming from me, from a deep core inside. A deep pain of grief and sorrow I didn’t know was there. Or hadn’t acknowledged. There is a huge difference between what we know with our head and what is happening in our hearts. The reality of getting on a plane and leaving her 4000 miles behind hit like a thunderbolt.
At the time, and for a long time afterwards, it was a raw wound, patched and bandaged but always there. Neither she nor we were prepared for the separation and difficulty of communicating across time zones. It has been a difficult passage for us, but we have come out the other side and she has no regrets about her decision to stay.
Now graduated from college and in the workplace, the short annual vacations have brought it home how little time she can spend with family. And what the consequences will be in the future should she marry and have children. She is currently looking to transfer with her company to Europe to be closer to family. Like many expat children growing up outside their birth countries, family bonds can be unusually close – they’ve had to rely on immediate family for support, rather than the extended family and friends they would have had around them in their birth country.
And this year will be the last time we empty our nest. Harry is ready, so are we. Not in a bad way, but because it is how things are, how things should be. We are better prepared as parents for the trials and tribulations ahead, better equipped to know when to step in and be parents, when to let them figure it out for themselves.
The issue for us is that while our middle child is heading 4000 miles east to Europe (fingers crossed), Harry has elected to study at UBC in Vancouver, Canada – 4787 miles to our west. A nine hour flight and a nine hour difference in time zones.
We have been working on ways of dealing with the situation which, hopefully, will ease the way for each of us to feel happy, secure and connected. How to handle communicating over time zones, dealing with money, credit cards and student loans, use of social media, keeping them safe, and most importantly how often and when he’ll come home.
These things sound glib and straight forward, but through experience we’ve discovered they’re not. Each family has to find their own way, plot their course through uncharted territory, often feeling alone, perhaps dealing with a child who is finding it hard to settle away from home.
When I sat and thought about it, I realised our family had an awful lot of practical and emotional experience at dealing with these issues, learned the hard way through trial and error. Things I wish I’d known with my older two, that would have made the transition of leaving home less stressful and painful for all of us.
If you’re interested I’d like to share those insights and suggestions over the next few posts. Anyone up for the ride?
Articles in the series:
Just for fun College Bound Kids?: So You Think They’re Smart?